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Where the Boys Are : The Pla-Boys of the Postal League take ball playing seriously. Nothing stops them--not wind, heat or family commitments.

August 31, 1994|DUANE NORIYUKI | Los Angeles Times

They arrive at the park by 4 p.m. and flop down on the cool grass of a shaded area near the curb. They change into their softball shoes and examine their leather gloves, most of them faded and worn soft by seasons of play.

Some of the players lie wilted from the heat, a couple of them sigh deeply as they finish cigarettes before flicking them into St. Andrews Street. Slowly they stand and walk toward the ballpark to jog their mandatory two laps across the outfield grass. Damn, it's hot.

All but one are U.S. Postal Service employees. It is good, steady work. They live throughout the Los Angeles area, but the roots of their team, the Pla-Boys, coalesce here in South L.A., where twice a week they sharpen their skills at a dying game.

There were once 24 men's fast-pitch teams in the Postal League, but now there are only 14, as more players are attracted to the slow-pitch version of the sport.

The game, like few others, partners the young and old. The Pla-Boys range in age from 23-year-old shortstop Eric Perry, whose gold earrings dangle from both sides of a shaved head, to Billie Small, the 62-year-old pitcher whose cap covers a head of graying hair.

The Pla-Boys take the game more seriously than most. Other teams may practice once a week or not at all in preparation for the Saturday games, but the Pla-Boys are here every Tuesday and Thursday, even on days like today, when the temperature is in the mid-90s and the heat reflects wickedly off the dirt infield.

For about 20 years, they practiced at a nearby playground but decided to move on when gunfire came to play. Here at St. Andrews, seniors walk laps around the park and young people gather innocently in the shade. There is distant laughter and a peaceful calm, but it is veiled by a sixth-sense caution that comes with living in the city.

The Pla-Boys come to life slowly. It is their last practice before their league championship playoffs. Some of them have just gotten off work, others are working late shifts and their days are just beginning.

There is history and tradition to the Pla-Boys, not all of it principled. Some of the players have been together for more than 20 years, bonded by their love for the game and all that comes with it--the competition and glory and trappings.

The older players remember when they played 10 games a week for numerous teams. After games, they would socialize around a cooler of beer. In softball, this is known as camaraderie. Or they would go to the bars that sponsored teams and eat and drink for free until closing time.

"That's why I couldn't keep my first wife," Small says. "I was never home."

*

As the players begin playing catch, the balls gather velocity and begin slapping hard into their gloves. The chatter begins to flow.

Some people say the Pla-Boys have "the big head," and mouths to match. Players from other teams may laugh with them and drink their beer, but deep down inside they love to see the Pla-Boys lose. They have always, perhaps undeservedly, been cast as the villains.

Through fund-raisers and members' dues, the club helps players who face financial hardship. They recently made a donation when a member's house caught on fire and they do the same whenever there's a death in a player's family. Each year at Christmas, the club delivers food baskets to the needy.

Founded in the early 1960s, the Pla-Boys now sponsor men's and women's slow-pitch teams as well as a youth team that plays here at St. Andrews. The Pla-Boy Club, made up primarily of the old-timers, raises money for team expenses.

There have been glorious moments. In the last 20 years, they have won 13 league playoff titles. They once won 68 straight games and seven consecutive championships. But it is not the victories one remembers, says Clay Williams, 54, a coach and 29-year Pla-Boy veteran.

The losses--especially the important ones--seem to run over and over in his mind, he says, like a loop of film.

Last year's playoffs have haunted him for a year now--the missed opportunities and uncharacteristic errors. Fast-pitch is a game played in a flurry, and the slightest bobble or hesitation can be catastrophic.

A year later, Williams can practically give a play-by-play of last year's disheartening semifinal loss to their rivals, the Heat.

"Four errors," he says, shaking his head. "Four double plays."

It will take three wins for the Pla-Boys to claim the Postal League crown, but one loss would put them out of the running.

The pace picks up as the team begins batting practice. Each player puts down a couple of bunts and takes 10 swings. It ends with fielding practice. Williams hits to players one at a time and has them chasing down balls until their legs are weak and their chests are heaving.

Following the two-hour workout, they repair to the shade and the trunks of their cars, where Coleman coolers await. The Pla-Boys also are celebrating a birthday, so half a gallon of gin makes the rounds.

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